Mothers and Pacifism

May 9, 2010

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe
was a nineteenth-century abolitionist and activist who is best known for having written the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861. At that time, she appears to have condoned war for the purpose of abolishing slavery, but, by 1870, when she wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation, she had seen the result of war—death, death, and death—and this later piece has a pacifist’s tone. Mrs. Howe is blunt and graphic in expressing her distaste for warfare:

We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

Did I mention that Julia Ward Howe was a feminist, too? She believed that women, as wives and mothers, were the shapers of the men who shaped society. Since she desired a peaceful society, she understandably linked pacifism and motherhood.

Nobody hates war more than a mother. I know, because I watched my mother eke out a minute-by-minute imitation of life while my brother was deployed in Vietnam. My mother had never traveled more than four hundred miles from her place of birth, but she learned to imagine what Danang and Hue and Phnom Penh were like, because her son was there. She couldn’t understand foreign policy, but she absorbed the news of the war every hour she was awake—on the radio, on television, in the newspaper—as a sponge absorbs water. She was heavy with the news of the war, because her son was there. When a reporter said “Hue,” if my brother was in Hue, she stopped. Everything stopped, until the reporter said something that gave her reason to believe my brother could still be alive.

My mother taught her son “charity, mercy, and patience.” But I don’t think she felt he was “unlearning” them by going to war. I think she felt he was practicing them, because she trusted the “irrelevant agencies” who told her that her son’s war was just.

Perhaps Mother’s Day is a good time for mothers all across the world to tell their sons and daughters outright that they didn’t raise them to go to war, that they raised them to make peace. Perhaps Mother’s Day should be a time for war stories—a day for mothers to talk about how it feels to live under the power of a word—a word such as Hue—that can stop your heart. Perhaps Mother’s Day should be Pacifist’s Day—a time when a “general congress of women without limit of nationality” can meet “To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, The great and general interests of peace.”

That was Mrs. Howe’s vision when she wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation. I think it’s still a good idea, 140 years later.

Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

—Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day Proclamation

Happy Mother’s Day.


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